Watch Cats reach for the stars again

We can confirm Ger Cunningham didn’t lose the run of himself last week. Sure, he might have used the words "Kilkenny" and "less intimidating" in the same sentence but his argument was of sound foundation, writes John Fogarty.

Watch Cats reach for the stars again

No All-Ireland-winning team in recent history has had to absorb a loss as extensive as what the Cats have experienced in recent months.

In JJ Delaney alone, they are now bereft of a player who along with Henry Shefflin, would squeeze themselves into the greatest side of all time. Tommy Walsh would be angling for a place too.

The retirements of Walsh, Brian Hogan, Aidan Fogarty and David Herity may have been expected and supporters compensated that at least none of them started the All-Ireland final replay win over Tipperary.

Still, those points overlook the fact three of them (four including Delaney) were on the team that beat Galway three seasons ago.

And if, as Brian Cody has routinely maintained of late, it’s all about the panel, then their rich experience will leave a considerably-sized void.

Ballyhale Shamrocks’ victory at the weekend means they will cut an unfamiliar look for most if not all of the division games, which conclude five days after the club’s final against Kilmallock.

Shefflin’s performance in Tullamore on Sunday was splendid but for now he remains behind glass and may stay there.

The absence of the Fennelly brothers is sure to be felt as well as TJ Reid, who has well and truly put his indifferent days behind him. Joey Holden had also been touted as a possible replacement for Delaney at full-back.

It mightn’t be until a league quarter-final or, dare it be said, a relegation showdown that Cody begins to address that question.

The evidence for an uncertain spring stakes up when you also consider they missed out on the Walsh Cup. It was a commendable decision to pull out of the competition as a mark of respect to Lester Ryan’s father but those January games have been good to them in the past.

Still, you can imagine Cody wouldn’t have taken such a decision if it was going to be anything more than a nominal drawback. The league has always meant something to him. When Kilkenny lost their opening two games in 2013, their seasoned men were returned and they went undefeated for the next five games in the competition. Although, it’s widely agreed that redoubling of efforts had negative repercussions later in the year.

The changes to the format last year means Kilkenny will be afforded some latitude over the next six weeks. Tipperary reached a final on the back of just two wins from five last year. A quarter-final against one of Division 1B’s better teams just as his Ballyhale players return might just be right up Cody’s street.

But it would be myopic to think Kilkenny, even without over a third of their 2014 panel, won’t be on their toes from the get-go in Páirc Uí Rinn on Saturday night. If Cody’s remarks the morning after last year’s final replay didn’t offer some insight into how they are driven, Richie Power’s hastily-deleted tweet on All Stars night showed the players, as is often the case, won’t need much direction. Paul Murphy said as much last month when he spoke of embracing the challenge presented by Delaney’s exit. “It’s actually exciting to think you’ll have to step in there and there’ll be less protection. With JJ gone, you’ll never fill his boots but it’s great to think you or somebody else will have to fill that No3 jersey.”

Murphy disagreed that “coping” was the right term to describe what Kilkenny are faced with this year but it’s difficult to see it any other way, at least for the league proper not forgetting they have three away days.

For a team that has dispelled whispers (twice) that they were over the hill, Kilkenny now find themselves under it. Privately, those of last season’s vintage will harness the questions being asked of them without their retirees and the Shamrocks, eager to respond to the “disrespect” shown to the team in the All Stars for the second time in three years.

Watch them rage after the death of lights. It will make for compelling viewing.

* Email: john.fogarty@examiner.ie

Reserve judgment until county squads are back to full strength

The main gripe about returning to a pre-Christmas start to the National Football League is how it had warped the competition. The three games prior to the holiday contrasted severely with those once it resumed in the new year.

All-Ireland winners and others who went far in the previous championship were pale versions of themselves in October and November (if you thought Kerry were rusty last Sunday week...).

It was only when February came around that they were truly back in the saddle. As a result, the integrity of the competition was compromised.

This year’s three-week break mightn’t be as long as the hiatus back in 2000-01 but it’s the most significant since the decision to start the leagues in February. With no Railway Cup filling the void this year, it means teams will have exclusive access to their players, apart from releasing them for league games with their clubs.

By round three on February 28/March 1, the majority of players will be available to managers. Cluxton, Flynn, Bernard Brogan, Cian O’Sullivan, Cooper, Crowley, Cafferkey, Andy Moran... just a few of the names set to return next month. Notice how team-sheets will change. With three games over a maximum of 14 days, they’ll be needed. The intensity of that “middle third” of the programme coupled with the return of key personnel couldn’t be more divorced from the opening two rounds. Best to reserve verdicts until then.

Referees need help implementing rules

We need to talk about referees. At least referees chief Pat McEnaney acknowledged mistakes have been made. The problem is so many are being made now.

If the opening two weekends of the league are a marker, we are in for a year of acrimony and scepticism about the capabilities of football’s leading officials.

Rather than aid them, it is becoming clear the black card is either freezing or confusing them.

Last weekend, Aidan O’Shea and Graham Reilly can count themselves unfortunate to have picked up black cards deviating from the textbook definitions.

When Dessie Mone eventually received one in Castleblayney on Sunday, it was only after serious consultation between ref and his assistants. The GAA might defend such actions, saying “better he got it right than wrong”. Yet he was in a close to perfect position to make the call. The delay hampered his authority. When he ignored other black card offences, it made his job tougher.

We are loathe to use the word “crisis” but if the GAA don’t realise referees need help, they might pay for it later this year. The clock/hooter appeared one way of doing just that, but hey...

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